I’m late to this party. I was born in 1981, and first able to follow the NFL closely in 1987 (John Stallworth’s last season!). This seemingly would give me a chance to live through a nice chunk of Stiller history, seeing a struggling team weighed down by the shadows of past glory build up again to be a championship contender, make a few great runs marred by disappointing endings, and then finally win it all as I entered adulthood. It’d be a good story.
Problem is, I drifted away from football until the 2007 season. I feel like I missed out, although I’m glad to have made it back into the fold in time to enjoy last year. Eventually I immersed myself in Steelers history and got caught up, and that’s led me to ponder: of the times I missed out on, which were the most fun to live through? If I were to pick, say, five years from the history of this franchise to get a chance to experience as they happened, which would they be?
The “obvious” answer (again, remembering that I was lucky enough to be there for 2008) would be years #IX, X, XIII, XIV, and XV. But I don’t quite roll that way. I went a different direction in trying to pick five seasons that by all accounts were amazing, but I’ll never be able to know first hand.
Why five? Well, it’s an easy arbitrary number. But I would probably have made it a six-pack and included 1995 if I weren’t excluding the O’Donnell/Blitzburgh era on a technicality. I wasn’t following too closely, but I was aware, and remember the post-season games. There were some great Steelers teams in those years, despite the bitter pills at the end: losing to the @&*@ing Bills, losing to the @&(&ing Cowboys, losing the most heartbreaking playoff loss in franchise history in ’94, etc. From that set, I would have included 1995 as a particularly special year. Some people argue that the 1994 team was even better, but 1995 had a story worth following. A Polamalu-caliber loss on defense with Rod Woodson’s injury and a 3-4 start, followed by adjustments, dominance, and winning one of the best AFCC games ever. And yes, the Super Bowl didn’t go so well, but at least it was a good fight given that Pittsburgh was something like a 99-point underdog, and doesn’t diminish the achievements of the rest of the year too much.
Okay, my choices:
The Early Years [nothing]
I hate to seem like one of those people who pretends that the sport began in 1970. The Steelers played a lot of games before that, and occasionally did something worth getting excited about. It might have been nice to have seen the first winning season with Bill Dudley in 1942. The early ‘60s teams were almost but not quite great, the most successful being the 1962 squad that gave us the “Steelmark” logo. The first Steelers playoff team, from 1947, was as good as it got for the first 40 years (gotta love a QB/tailback who wears #0), and it coincided with the city of Pittsburgh as a whole starting to seriously care about pro football for the first time. So it’s an honorable mention. But the simple fact is that the early years didn’t produce a season that makes my top five “wish I was there!” list.
The 70s [1972 and 1979]
Would I seriously rather experience 1972 than three of the SB years? Would I seriously pick it over *the first SB*? Or 1976, for that matter, and the best defense and running game in the history of civilization? I think so. The history of the team can be divided into two portions: pre-1972, and 1972 onward. Steelers football changed from a pastime to a passion, and the Steelers went from perennially mediocre to perennially awesome. Forever. The Immaculate Reception was the last nudge to ensure the year would be immortal. This was the one that changed everything.
That was the beginning of a great run that peaked in 1979, perhaps the best time ever to be a sports fan in Pittsburgh. I think of it as kind of the pinnacle of this amazing home-grown team, proving that they were two whole Lombardis better than any other football team that had ever been assembled.
The 80s 
The ‘80s just weren’t quite right. The fashion and hairstyles, the music, the movies, and the football. I don’t know quite what was wrong with the world during the ‘80s, but trust me, something was wrong. Steelers football mostly was too. 1982 is remembered mostly for the players’ strike, and 1983 for how thoroughly a Steelers team could collapse. 1984 at least makes an okay case for itself, with a conference championship game appearance, Stallworth’s big comeback year, Louis Lipps, etc. Not “legendary,” though. And the whole rest of the decade isn’t remembered much at all. With one exception.
Steel Curtain Rising recently did a series of articles about Noll’s last hurrah, 1989. Even before reading them, I was a bit fascinated by this ultimate year of a much better Steelers team than anyone could have imagined. For those who like rooting for the dark horse, it must have been amazing to follow this team that somehow stayed alive. *No one* expected anything going into the year. The ’89 Steelers lost blowouts, they were 4-6 at one point, and they overachieved every time anyone tried to give up on them. After a decade of relative drought, I’d have gone nuts during that grudge playoff game against Houston. I’d have loved to have been part of maybe the best of the “overachieving underdog” years.
O’Donnell/Blitzburgh era [nothing]
Excluded as explained above. 1995 would make my list otherwise.
Turn Of The 21st Century 
Lots of interesting seasons to choose from here, actually. The early “Bus N’ Slash” era must have been exciting to watch in 1997. 2000 sent Three Rivers off right with a team that started 0-3 but ended up with a winning record and setting things up for a good decade. The 2001 team went 13-3 and may have been the best of its era. All in all, though, the coolest stories, improbable outcomes, and memorable moments seem to all come from the Comeback Season of 2002. What a crazy, crazy year. I’m envious of all of you who were paying attention while it all happened.
Modern era 
The 15-1 season in 2004 deserves this brief mention too, but in the end, I’m going to have to go for the big feel-good Steelers story of the 21st century. It’s got overcoming the odds, it’s got that personal angle with the Bengals rivalry and the Bettis homecoming, and it’s got a playoff game with a legendary ending. And yeah, it’s got the happy ending, the part where after years of coming close, the Steelers finally bring home a Championship for the new generation of fans that I barely missed being a part of.
Anyone else want to chime in? Any times you wish you could have seen?